You may or may not have seen the well-known clip from Alton Brown’s “Good Eats” that has made its rounds on the internet, in which Alton makes what is arguably the world’s most literal grilled cheese. His goal is to make sure that every element of the sandwich is physically kissed by the direct heat of the grill, and he uses MacGyver-level ingenuity to convert spatulas into grill pans. Tossing a few handfuls of cheese into these makeshift pans, he melts the cheese over low heat while the bread browns dutifully on the hotter half of the grill.
Without a doubt, this sandwich looks divine when assembled, but the reaction from the Internet was a resounding, “Sure, it looks good, but why make it so hard on yourself to make something so simple?”
I stand somewhere in-between these two parties; it does seem like if you wanted to make more than the two sandwiches the recipe yields, you either need quite a few spatulas or a good amount of time to spare (the cheese alone can take up of nine minutes to cook). But looking at it on a larger scale, I could not respect Alton more for his refusal to accept that even a recipe as simple and unassuming as a grilled cheese is ever truly perfect.
So this month on The Test, we will turn our eye to this cheesy, golden brown symbol of our childhoods, and attempt to elevate it beyond two pieces of Wonderbread and a rubbery slice of Kraft American cheese. Our goal is to preserve these childhood memories by avoiding overly complicated additions to the process, but still do everything in our power to make it a restaurant-ready recipe that everyone can enjoy.
Cheese, You Make My Heart Melt
I think there are probably a good number of us who hold a deep-rooted love for the processed product we know as American cheese; it’s cheap, holds its shape decently when melted, and has (some) flavor. If you haven’t picked up on it from my flippant descriptions, I’m not the biggest fan of the stuff, but I understand why some people go with it. Real cheese can be very temperamental, and separates if exposed to heat for too long, becoming a leathery mess topped with pools of fat.
To understand how to prevent this, we should take a brief, mildly scientific look at the makeup of cheese. During the cheese making process, an enzyme called rennet is added to milk, which through the wonders of science, breaks down the milk’s proteins in a highly specific way. As the rennet goes to work, we see a separation in the milk occur, resulting in solid milk curds (which you’ve probably had deep fried - SO good) and the watery whey runoff. It’s these solidified curds that make up the body of our cheeses, suspended among droplets of water and fat; unfortunately, this bond is delicate and begins to break down in the presence of heat.
So knowing this, it might make a bit more sense when I tell you that cheese doesn’t truly melt; what we perceive as the melting of those delicious slices of cheese is actually those proteins separating. WE can liken this process somewhat to a rubber band being stretched. Just like that rubber band, cheese has its limit; eventually it will “snap,” and the proteins rapidly clump back together, squeezing out any last bits of moisture and creating those unattractive pools of fat.
With Age Comes Great Flavor
When I was taking my soups class in culinary school, we were running through many of the obligatory restaurant favorites, and eventually hit the classic broccoli cheddar soup. Our natural instinct is to throw every last shred of cheese we have on hand into the pot, but even a soup or sauce stabilized with starch will eventually take on a gritty texture if too much cheese is added.
Our instructor let us in on a little secret - to accentuate the flavors of a young, creamy cheese, like cheddar, you should not load the pot with it, but rather use it in smaller amounts alongside an older cheese, like Parmesan or Roquefort. It’s honestly a magical combination that creates something entirely new; I think of it as bringing a little attitude to the cheeses that haven’t fully matured.
So if we apply this little nugget of knowledge to our grilled cheese sandwich, we get something that doesn’t just taste like dairy; no need to dunk it into tomato soup just to find a bit of real flavor!
Pan Roast Your Way to Success
So looking back, we know that we have to take care with our young melting cheeses, like cheddar and fontina, and that they need to lean on the experience of the more elderly members of the family for flavor. Now, let’s move forward to actually getting this thing made.
In choosing the bread for your sandwich, the world is your oyster. Want to break out the Wonderbread? Cool. Personally, I think the bread should be just as important as the cheese, so something with good flavor like an aged sourdough or a delectable pretzel roll are natural go-tos. But remember, this isn’t fine dining; whatever you may have lying around is fine, as long as you treat it right.
For maximum buttery crunch and flavor, I always toast the bread on one side before assembling my sandwich. The cheese (and whatever other ingredients wander into the mix) will go on the cooked side of the bread, so all we have to do is toast the outside and melt the cheese. Where we run into trouble is ensuring the bread hasn’t toasted to a charcoal black by the time our ingredients are heated through.
To this, I propose a solution rooted in one of the most fundamental techniques of restaurant cooking: the pan roast. When a chef has a protein that is particularly thick, it’s obvious to them that if they cook it entirely on the direct heat of the gas range, it will be completely blackened by the time it has cooked to temperature internally. So instead, the meat is seared on one side on the stove top, flipped, and transferred (pan and all) to the ambient heat of the oven, where it can be gradually cooked without drying out or burning the surface.
Equip yourself with a heavy-bottomed pan that can take the heat of the oven, and do as the great restaurant chefs do. Assemble the grilled cheese. Toast it to golden brown on one side, flip, and throw the whole kit and caboodle into the heat of your oven. Watch attentively, making sure to wipe off the inevitable drool from your face, and before you know it, the perfect grilled cheese will emerge.
With food culture spreading like wild fire across every facet of today’s society, I think it’s great that there is a rapidly growing appreciation and recognition of the food that we may have otherwise taken for granted. Even your average home chefs are finding themselves motivated to push their cooking into the realm of art that can be ooh-ed and aah-ed over by friends. Sometimes, however, in this push to elevate our craft, the simple comfort foods we loved growing up fall by the wayside. Never forget about the simple pleasures in life, and don’t be afraid to turn back to what you know for inspiration; sometimes it’s the humblest dishes that impress the most.
THE ULTIMATE GRILLED CHEESE
Makes 2 Sandwiches
4 slices thick-cut, good-quality bread
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
4 slices cheddar cheese, or other melting cheese (Havarti, fontina, etc.)
¼ cup aged Parmesan cheese or other mature cheese (Pecorino, Parmigiano-Reggiano, etc.), grated
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
2. Place a large heavy-bottomed sauté pan over medium heat, and add two tablespoons butter to the pan. When the butter stops foaming, add the slices of bread and toast until golden brown on one side (cook in batches if the pan isn’t big enough).
3. Turn off the heat, and remove the slices of bread from the pan. Transfer to a cutting board. Place a slice of cheddar cheese and a bit of Parmesan on the toasted side of each slice of bread, then sandwich the bread together.
4. Return the pan to medium heat, and add the remaining butter. Place the two sandwiches into the pan, and allow to toast to a golden brown on one side. Turn off the heat, flip the sandwiches, and transfer to the oven.
5. Cook the sandwiches in the oven until the cheese melts and the bread is golden brown on the remaining side, about 3-5 minutes. Remove from the oven, cut the sandwiches in half, and serve immediately.
Originally from Columbia, South Carolina, Milo Klos is relatively new to Chicago, but is already looking to leave his mark on the city's food culture, eating as much as possible along the way. He received both his bachelor's degree in creative writing and culinary certification from the University of South Carolina, and spent a couple of years teaching cooking classes in the SC-based Charleston Cooks classroom kitchen before making his move to Chicagoland. Here in the city, he works as a private culinary instructor as well as helping to teach cooking classes downtown at Sur La Table. Any bit of free time is usually spent styling food for his Instagram account (@chefagrams), or immersing himself in anything even remotely Batman related.
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